Many have heard the name conga santiaguera, but few have ever seen it, and even fewer been in it. The conga santiaguera is, without a question, one of the most impacting cultural experiences you’ll ever be exposed to in Cuba, but the fact that congas only come out a few times during the year makes them an elusive treat to witness. What renders the conga santiaguera so special?
Let’s start with a little bit of history. A lot of debate and uncertainty exists around the origins of this musical tradition. Not even the origin of the name can be accurately traced, with several theories suggesting it might derive from the ethnic origin of the blacks who played it (Congo), or from related African words, like nkunga, which means “rhythm” in some languages. Where everyone agrees, though, is on the controversy that the conga santiaguera always generates, and the powerful appeal of seeing thousands of sweaty people tightly packed, cheerfully dancing through the hilly streets of Santiago as they advance from one barrio of the city to another.
The conga has historically exposed the clashing values of the ruling class and the poor sectors of society, mainly blacks. This joyful demonstration of humorous collective naughtiness has for decades and decades been a love-it or hate-it event, deriving from its extremely disruptive character. A crowd of cheerful blacks was something of concern for those wanting to keep them in orderly place, and who often took to the newspapers to publicly denounce the Afro-Cuban way of being.
Musically, the conga santiaguera is a unique manifestation of contagious, open-air polyrhythmia conceived to rock body and soul to the core. When a conga takes place, a contingent of musicians takes to the streets carrying a variety of instruments, including drums like quintos, galletas, bocúes and pilones; campanas and the legendary Chinese cornet, without which the conga would be unrecognizable these days. The conga santiaguera beat can be easily heard from more than a mile away, depending on how many musicians are in it. Having around 20 musicians is common.
The conga santiaguera carries a profound intensity accentuated by a dance step called arrollar (to “run over”) that makes the ground tremble with terrifying, yet seductive force and rhythmic vibrations. The sound of the conga is experienced beyond the mere act of listening: it’s a strange symbiosis of hearing the beat and simultaneously feeling your body tremble. You cannot sit when a conga passes by. This is not metaphoric language, by the way. It’s simply not possible to remain quiet because the vibrations are felt inside the thorax due to their strength, pulsating the same way fear and excitement do, with cold-feeling tummy area shooting sensations that will only calm down when you get inside the conga, or very near it. There’s also a weirdly strong FOMO when you’re hearing a conga from afar and you can’t be near it.
Being inside the conga santiaguera is a different story, though. You have to be brave. The energy is high. Everybody is chanting a chorus that usually dares say things authorities would not appreciate. It is that time of the year where you can be irreverent, rowdy, undisciplined and rude, most likely without a consequence. Fights often erupt, as the tight proximity, heat, sweat and constant shoveling creates frictions. There’s also shoveling for fun, whereby pockets of groups in the crowd of several thousand, start to happily push each other. In general, though, most of the conga enthusiasts join the crowd for the passion of “arrollar” with a raucous pleiad of dancers. Police presence inside the conga is prominent, to keep things from getting violent, but even the policemen need to contain themselves from the desire to arrollar.
The best times to catch a conga are the official dates: St John’s and St. Peter’s days in June, as well as during the Santiago Carnival. Take serious note of the fact that the June congas are the ones organized by the neighbourhoods and take place parading through the streets. That’s the type of conga I’ve described in this article. During carnival, you’ll be able to appreciate it musically, but the wild crowds are in June. Also, please note that I’ve been consistently describing the conga santiaguera in this article; that is, the Santiago conga. Nowhere else in Cuba the conga beat has the power and intensity that it possesses in Santiago. So if you hear about a conga somewhere else, for the love of God, don’t expect the experience I’ve described above.
In 7 Days in Cuba, we organize a June trip to Santiago that allows you to experience the real deal, in conjunction with other regional attractions. Contact me if you wish to participate.